For years, ancient secrets have been unraveled through the discovery of mummies. When we think of mummies in our society, we think of the whimsical figures that symbolize the approach of Halloween. Hollywood films have often created the resurrection of ancient gods, goddess or important figures though mummies. Often times, we do not think about the cultures that actually practice mummification and the value that practice holds within their society.
The Practice of Mummification in Ancient Egypt
Mummification in ancient Egypt started around 2600 B.C, and this was a process to preserve bodies [i]. Ancient Egyptian religions believed it was important for dead bodies to be in good condition and look as closely as possible to the person before they died. Egyptians believed that the soul left the body after death, and the body needed to be preserved in excellent conditions so the soul could find it in the afterlife to reanimate it [ii].
The process of mummification took about seventy days, and required special priests that could pray and also embalm the body. First, all organs would be removed from the body so that it would not decay. Taking out the brain was a difficult task and could leave an individual with a disfigured face, so it was important that the embalmers were careful. Only the heart was left in the body because it was believed to hold a person’s intelligence and being. Next, all the moisture in the body was removed from a type of salt called natron. Natron was placed around and inside the body, and this helped to dry it out. They were later taken out, and the body would be dried out. Hundreds of linens were then used to wrap the body. Afterwards the body was wrapped with linen, a final shroud or a final cloth.
After the special priest embalmed and wrapped the body, they performed essential rituals. These rituals were performed to prepare the deceased for the afterlife. “Opening of the Mouth,” was a practiced ritual used to ensure the decease could eat, drink, speak, and see in the afterlife [iii]. Before the priests began the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony, they first purified the body. During the rite of purification, priests would chant special prayers over the deceased. Once the ritual began, the chief lector priest and assistant priests first sacrificed animals such as gazelles, geese, and bulls. These sacrifices symbolized the killings of the dead king’s enemies. Then, the priests would use the special tools (instruments of Anpu) to open the eyes and mouth of the statue [iv].
Another essential ritual performed was “The Weighing of the Heart.” This ceremony takes place after the soul enters the afterlife. The soul first confesses for past sins committed then the soul enters into the ‘Hall of Maat” for the weighing of its heart. The heart is placed on a balancing scale; the heart is on one side and ‘Maat’s feather of truth’ is on the other [v]. Ancient Egyptian cultures believed the heart revealed the true intentions of the person. The heart is weighed by the god Anubis, while the god Thoth record the results. If the heart was heavier than the Maat’s feather, the soul would be eaten by the demon Ammut (a hybrid of crocodile, lion, and hippo). If the heart was balanced with the Maat’s feather, the soul would be sent to be judged by the god of the afterlife [vi].
Tombs for the deceased were built before their death. Final touches were added to the tomb during the mummification of the deceased. After this process, essential items needed for the afterlife such as furniture and statutes, painting of religious or daily scenes, and a list of food and prayers were added to the tomb [iii]. Once the rituals were complete the deceased were placed into the tomb, finally prepared for the afterlife.
Not everyone was mummified and the mummification process tells us a lot about Egyptian culture [ii]. Mummification was a long and expensive process that only certain people could afford. Extensive usage of linen, mummy decorations and jewelry demonstrated high quality in mummification [vii]. This was something only the wealthy or the royals could afford. The mummification process was an elaborate procedure, and it helped to demonstrate the importance of death and afterlife in Egyptian culture. Mummification was a way to remember loved ones and create a memorial for them [viii]. It was important that each body was taken care of properly, and prayers and rituals were done over the body. This reveals the significance of death, and the importance of embalming in this culture.
Ancient Egyptians valued life and wanted to ensure their lives would continue after death. The idea of death and a proper burial was prominent in their society. Arrangement for death were planned early to ensure the spirit reached the afterlife. Mummification was important to Egyptian culture because it was a way of preserving the body to protect the spirit. Ancient Egyptians believed the soul was made up of three components the ka, ba, and akh [iii]. The spirit ka remains in the tomb to receive offerings, it is immoral and is nourished by the offering of food. The ba is the soul that freely travels in and out of the tomb, the ba was released during the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony. When the ba and ka combines it forms the akh [ix]. The akh is the spirit that ascends to the sky to travel to the afterworld [x]. Rituals and mummification were rooted deep into the spirituality of ancient Egyptian culture.
The Practice of Mummification in Eastern Asia
The mummification process was not universal and different civilizations had different procedures. For instance, Korea did not use embalming techniques and the climate did not allow for natural mummification [xi]. Mummification in Korea originally occurred by accident, and was not intentional. In the Joseon period, tombs were constructed with sand, red clay and lime. It was placed on the grave and it hardened the grave and sealed it. This lowered the oxygen inside the coffin and raised the temperature which caused the mummification process to occur [xii].
China’s mummification process was very similar to Korea’s. China also placed clay, lime and sand on their graves; however, they also included sticky rice water. Research done on Korean and Chinese mummies indicated that hair, nails and skin were all found to be preserved really well. The internal organs were also well preserved. The sealing and the humidity in the coffin helped to preserve the dead body. Clothes were also wrapped around the body, and this prevented bacteria in the body from dying. Charcoal was also placed inside the tomb and this absorbed the moisture [xi].
Graves built of lime soil mixture were traditional burial technique called ‘Hoegwakmyo,’ this was a practice in Korea amongst the Joseon people. This practice was vital in their religious beliefs. Additionally, the mummies found in China belonged to Ming and Song dynasty. The tombs found in China were called “sticky rice paste sealed tomb”. The mummies found in China were similar to the ones found in Korea because the remainings were perfectly preserved. The burial techniques in both places were parallel because of their close religious ideologies practices [xi].
As said before, mummification in Korea and China were originally unintentional acts. Mummification in both places resulted from burial technique, which is not surprising because China and Korea share common cultural origins. Both civilizations burial styles were influenced by the ideology of Confucianism. Confucianism is an ethical philosophy rather than a religion. Confucianism is built off of the principle of social values, humaneness, and virtue [xiii]. During the rise of the Joseon empire, there was a religious shift from Buddhism to Neo-Confucianism in Korea. The practice of Neo-Confucianism derived from Confucianism. This practice was led by philosophers and innovators who believed in civil service and self-reflection [xiv]. The co-founder of Neo-Confucianism, Zhu Xi believed that ‘Hoegwakmyo’ was the best burial system for Confucianism. Zhu Xi wrote a ritual guide book titled ‘Jujagare,’ that stated sealing the tombs would protect the grave from intruders [xv]. The shift of cultural beliefs resulted in the remains of descendants of the Joseon, Song, and Ming dynasty becoming mummified.
Misrepresentation of Mummification
The ancient practice of mummification is one that has been performed all around the globe in early civilizations: from Egypt to Korea and China. Despite the fact that these sacred rituals were performed in so many places, Western Media, specifically Hollywood, tends to depict Egyptian mummies almost exclusively. Additionally, Western media very rarely portrays said mummies in the light that the ancient culture intended. These misinterpretations raise an ethical concern: Is it justified for the walking dead to be presented in a dark, evil, and mischievous manner in the name of entertainment or should those in charge of present-day Western media be held accountable for contorting several cultures’ traditions and rituals in order to attempt to entertain the public while knowingly misinforming them.
For the past decades, Hollywood has concocted an image of the walking dead, namely mummies, that shows them as figures that “violate laws of nature, mock the laws of man, and disregard the code of the West [xvi]. These same figures are also commonly used as tools of mockery and critique for topics such as consumerism, religion, racism, nationalism, and other ideological concerns and threats of the West. These unearthly souls are commonly presented as embodiments of cannibalism, evisceration, mutation, and predators that kill the living in intimate yet impersonal ways [xvii].
One of the most famous examples of mummies being depicted in a dark light by Hollywood is the film The Mummy. In this action-packed cinema, director Alex Kurtzman paints a scene where a curse resurrects a mummy “seeking either vengeance or a lost lover, wreaking havoc on contemporary society until a hero stops it” [xviii]. Although the Kurtzman film is widely regarded as the epitome of “evil mummy” movies, the public has been exposed to the idea for decades. The public has been repeatedly exposed to the concepts of Egyptophilia and has partaken in a “mummy craze” dating back to before the discovery of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb back in 1922. Due to the public obsession with mummies and their counterparts, the first Hollywood film, which is now considered “the mother of all mummy films,” had its debut in 1932. The work, also presenting the mummy as an evil undead figure, set the template for other directors. In this film, starring Boris Karloff, an Egyptian priest by the name of Imhotep is mummified alive after attempting to bring back his long-time lover, princess Ankh-es-en-amon, from the dead. Imhotep proceeds to be revived thousands of years in later in contemporary society and believes that his lover is somewhere in London. He continues to look for his lost lover and wreaks havoc on the way [xix]. With ethical concerns aside, the success of mummies in a horror setting is because of the primal fears surrounding life, death, and the undead. In addition, the reports of a curse during the excavation of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb took off after the supposed words “Death comes on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the King” were inscribed on the tomb and the man who financed the project died from an infected mosquito bite [xx]. Just as any businessman and director would do, the opportunity to create work related to this trending topic was seized by many, thus the “evil mummy” stereotype was born.
The overwhelming ethical issue that arose with the creation of the “evil mummy” was the disrespect and mockery of an ancient culture. Since Tutankhamun’s tomb was the excavation that built up all the hype around mummification, early Egyptian culture became a joke, a topic of entertainment despite the historical inaccuracy the media presented the public with.
There have been rules implemented regarding the safety and preservation of real-life mummies within museums which vaguely state that “institutionalized human remains be treated respectfully according to the interests and beliefs of the body’s culture of origin” [xxi]. As a result of the wording of such policies, “respectful treatment” is largely undefined and as a result, these once sacred bodies are consistently degraded by people of the West. Public objections of mummies in museums are more than common as people argue that the display of human beings like an art show is a lack of respect to the human on display, regardless of culture. The other side argues that the display of the mummified corpses is the best way to disprove and eliminate stereotypes created by media [xxii].
Egyptian mummies and those of other cultures were mummified upon death with the intention of the preservation of one’s body. Those who were mummified were more often than not members of said culture’s nobility and due to the high cost of the burial ritual, those who were given the honor were considered sacred [iii]. The conception of mummies that has been painted by Western media is a disservice and an offense to not only those who were mummified, but the rest of the culture as well.
After analyzing the historical rise of mummies in Western media from an ethical, cultural, and scientific perspective, we can conclusively state that mummies are misrepresented by modern Western civilization. In terms of ethical concerns raised by this misrepresentation, the sacred process of mummification and its purpose, which is to preserve one’s soul for the afterlife, is degraded and mocked mostly through movies that present these reincarnated beings as evil. The exploration of scientific and cultural perspectives on mummification enables us to recognize the lack of respect that currently sits with the depiction of sacred traditions. As long as the public is blind to cultural appropriation that Western media promotes, cultures worldwide will never be fully respected.
[i] Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, “Egyptian Mummies”,https://www.si.edu/spotlight/ancient-egypt/mummies
[ii] Clinton Sandvick, Edward Whelan, “Why Egyptians Mummified their dead?”, Last modified January 4, 2018, https://dailyhistory.org/Why_did_the_Egyptians_Mummify_their_Dead%3F
[iii] “Egyptian Mummies.” Smithsonian Institution. https://www.si.edu/spotlight/ancient-egypt/mummies.
[iv] “The Opening of the Mouth Ceremony.” Experience Ancient Egypt. http://www.experience-ancient-egypt.com/egyptian-religion-mythology/egyptian-afterlife/opening-of-the-mouth-ceremony.
[v] Mark, Joshua J. “The Egyptian Afterlife & The Feather of Truth.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. April 06, 2019. https://www.ancient.eu/article/42/the-egyptian-afterlife–the-feather-of-truth/.
[vii] Gessler-Löhr, Beatrix. “Mummies and Mummification – Oxford Handbooks.” Oxford Handbooks – Scholarly Research Reviews. June 16, 2017. Accessed March 31, 2019. http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199571451.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199571451-e-41.
[viii] “Burial and the Dead in Ancient Egyptian Society.” SAGE Journals. Accessed March 31, 2019. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1469605302002001595.
[ix] “Anatomy of the Ancient Egyptian Soul.” Experience Ancient Egypt. http://www.experience-ancient-egypt.com/egyptian-religion-mythology/egyptian-afterlife/egyptian-soul.
[x] “Egyptian Mummies.” Smithsonian Institution. https://www.si.edu/spotlight/ancient-egypt/mummies.
[xi] Hoon, Dong, Bianucci, Raffaella, Fujita, Hisashi, and Jong Ha. “Mummification in Korea and China: Mawangdui, Song, Ming and Joseon Dynasty Mummies.” BioMed Research International. September 13, 2018. Accessed March 31, 2019. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/bmri/2018/6215025/.
[xiii] Oh, Chang Seok, In Uk Kang, Jong Ha Hong, Sergey Slepchenko, Jun Bum Park, and Dong Hoon Shin. “Tracing the Historical Origin of Joseon Mummies considering the Structural Similarities between the Burial Systems of Korean and Chinese Dynasties.” Papers on Anthropology 26, no. 2 (09, 2017): 68. doi:10.12697/poa.2017.26.2.07.
[xvi] Miller, Cynthia J., and Van Riper Anthony Bowdoin. Undead in the West: Vampires, Zombies, Mummies, and Ghosts on the Cinematic Frontier. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2013.
[xviii] Barker, Craig. “Friday Essay: Desecration and Romanticisation – the Real Curse of Mummies.” The Conversation. December 06, 2018. Accessed April 06, 2019. https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-desecration-and-romanticisation-the-real-curse-of-mummies-77476.
[xxi] Swaney, M., and M. Swaney. “THE LIVING DEAD: EGYPTIAN MUMMIES AND THE ETHICS OF DISPLAY.” Academia.edu – Share Research. May 2013. Accessed April 06, 2019. https://www.academia.edu/4677578/THE_LIVING_DEAD_EGYPTIAN_MUMMIES_AND_THE_ETHICS_OF_DISPLAY.
[xxii] Day, Jasmine. “‘Thinking Makes It So’: Reflections on the Ethics of Displaying Egyptian Mummies.” Papers on Anthropology. 2014. Accessed April 06, 2019. https://ojs.utlib.ee/index.php/PoA/article/view/poa.2014.23.1.03